Friday 17 October 2008

Of Milestones and Missed Chances....

On any other day, Mohali should have been a perfect venue for any speedster, if at all it came to making his debut in India. For Peter Siddle, the first delivery he bowled in test cricket – a perfect length bouncer to Gambhir – was also his best of the day, until the one that got Sachin out towards the fag end.

It has been a season of debutantes for Australia and it is going to stay so for some more time. Peter Siddle became the fifth player to make his debut for Australia in as many months, and the third one after Cameroon White and Shane Watson in last two tests. Therein lies a lesson or two, for both Indian selectors and the senior players alike, to plan and work their retirements in a phased mannered. By all accounts, India will be much more severely affected by the en masse retirements of 'Fab Four', if not five.

The other debutante of this test – Amit Mishra – must be thanking his luck and Ricky Ponting for calling it wrong at the toss of the coin. The first day has already proved how difficult it was for the fellow members of his ilk to bowl in perfect batting conditions. How hard it was, can also be gauged by the fact that Ponting employed a deep backward point and a deep square leg as early as the 11th over.

The Sehwag - Gambhir pair has been India's best since the other Delhi combo of Sehwag and Akash Chopra split in 2004. Which is why I was happy the selectors did not fiddle around with this pair under the guise of playing an extra fast bowler/ all rounder.

It is worrying that Gambhir has not been able to convert his starts into big ones. A case in point being his healthy average of over 50 in the recent series agaginst Sri Lanka, with a top score of just 74 runs. His dismissal along with that of Dravid and VVS almost put paid to India's hopes of a healthy day one score after a good start.

After that, it was a day of personal milestones, with Ganguly getting to the 7000 runs mark and Sachin scaling the summit of highest test runs. Under normal circumstances Sachin's landmark should have been a cause for celebration or even a separate post on the blog! For me, though, it was more a sigh of relief. It took a long time coming and his last few knocks were somewhat remniscent of the time when Kapil was desperately fishing for his record 432d wicket.

Personal landmarks tend to fog the distant team goals and it was good that these two records were done with on the very first day. Sometimes pressure can be very inhibiting as was evident in Sachin's last few innings. We saw a very different and liberated Sachin once he got past Brian Lara, sometimes displaying the same flamboyance that Lara did when he broke Alan Border's record.

Having also reached his 50th fifty, Sachin has taken India to some semblence of safety at the end of day one. But 311/5 still does not look like a good score considering that Australia will bat on a pitch that will play a perfect host on day two and three. India would have loved to see Sachin stay unbeaten. But all that is past now. Ganguly needs to pick the baton from here on. While Sachin will have many more opportunities to make amends for the missed century, Ganguly's countdown has already begun. He has to make each of his innings to count big from here on.

So far he has looked good to score a half century in this innings and his form has been decent in last couple of matches.

As the sun sets on his long, eventful and somewhat controversial career, tomorrow will present yet another battle for this combative player - perhaps the most important one - as he leads India's quest to score a defendable first innings total.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Importance of a Drawn Test

Last year, on the eve of India's series against England, I wrote a post titled Q & A, which highlighted the importance of not losing the opening test of an away tour. The gist of the post was:

a) India has never ever managed to win a series abroad, after losing the opening test and b) she had managed to draw the scores level on only two occasions after losing the series opener.

(Fortunately MS Dhoni, Steve Bucknor and weather gods collaborated to save the opening test at Lords for India, and true to these statistics, India went on to win the series)

I wanted to check the corresponding figures for home series, but kept postponing it for one reason or the other. What drove me to revisit this issue again was the surprisingly strong tirade against the Indian team in general, and Anil Kumble in particular, after they drew the Bangalore test. There were very few words of appreciation on how the batsmen hung on to a comfortable draw on a difficult fifth day pitch.

So consider this:

Up until the current one against Australia, India has played 59 test series in last 75 years.

Of these, India has won 28, lost 15, and drew 16.

In 59 series played so far, India has lost the opening test 16 times, losing 11 of those series. Of the remaining five times when the team lost the first test, it managed to comeback and level the series thrice (1964/65 against Australia, 1987/88 against West Indies and 1998/99 against Pakistan) and also win it twice (1972/73 against England and the 200/01 'VVS special' against Australia)

As for the wins in the opening test, India has won the opener in 20 series so far. 17 of these have ended in series victories for them. Twice have the opponents come back to level the series (New Zealand in 1969/70 and West Indies in 1994/95). The only time India has lost a series after winning the opening test was in 1984/85, when Gavaskar and Kapil's famous spat clearly overshadowed even Azhar's dream debut.

There have been 23 series in which the opening test has ended without a result (including the 1986/87 tied test versus Australia). India has won 9 out of these series and drew 11.

Only thrice has India lost the series after managing to draw the opening test - twice against West Indies (1948/49 & 1958/59) and once against Pakistan (1987), which means that India's chances of winning or leveling the series shoots dramatically after drawing the opening test.

Bangalore test was indeed tricky for India. I have mentioned in my previous post that Indians had not won a test here in last 13 years. Moreover a defeat in first test would have most certainly meant curtains for the entire series. The Bangalore test has provided team India a strong foothold from where they can possibly dictate this series.

I, for one, would never underestimate the importance of a drawn test, especially the opening one!

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Test Cricket Lovely Test Cricket

For the uninitiated, a game played over five days and thirty long hours, without producing any tangible result would amount to colossal waste of time. For the aficionados though, the Bangalore match showcased the essence of what the Test cricket is all about…..the charm of a long and hard fought draw! That India came out largely unscathed from the series opener was a surprise bonus to many, but this Test would still have retained every bit of its charm, even if the home team had succumbed to its first test blues. Afterall, it had lived up to Lord Beginner's immortal calypso, 'Cricket Lovely Cricket'.

It was not just about five days of 'absorbing cricket', as the cliché goes, it was also about verbal joust started by Zaheer Khan which will keep things simmering troughout the entire series. Have Indians finally learnt the subtle art of sledging? I would be mighty pleased if they have. More so, because it was straight out of Kumar Sangakkara's books,something I would prefer any day, over the on-field rubbish sprouted by the likes of Matt Prior, Symmonds, Harbhajan and co.

Zaheer Khan does have a point though. It is not often that Australia bats for two full days (and 150 overs) to score mere 430 runs. A scoring rate of less than three, gave India a good chance to wriggle itself out of a tight (again clichéd) situation. It is interesting to note that Australia has won the last two tests played at Bangalore, in 2004 and 1998, and their run rate has been well over 3.5 on both occasions. A sure sign that they are badly missing Symmonds and someone like Gilchrist, late in the order.

On the other hand, Bangalore hasn't been a happy ground for India. They have not won a test here in last thirteen years, losing to Australia (twice, 1998 and 2004), Pakistan (2005) and South Africa (2000) in the process. From that standpoint, it was a best possible start to a long series. More importantly, the 'Fab Four' have finally managed to avert defeat by batting a whole day, after a spate of unsuccessful attempts over the last twelve years.

The caravan now moves to India's Perth – Mohali. A day after the Mohali test ends, on October 22nd, whole of India would be glued to the space centre at Sriharikota, from where Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) will launch its first ever unmanned lunar mission, Chandrayaan. A win at Mohali, therefore, would not only give Spaceman Spiff and his crew an almost unbeatable lead, but also add 'Chaar Chaand' to Diwali festivities that follow.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

The Australian Sub-Prime

It was in Bangalore, just over a year ago, that Australia began their seven match ODI series, which they eventually won with consummate ease. As they resume their intriguing battle with India in test matches, at Bangalore again, it is also time to wonder when was the last time Australia started the test series as firm underdogs. And when was the last time you heard rookie names like Peter Siddle, Jason Krejza, Doug Bollinger, Bryce McGain, Beau Casson or Cameroon White in a frontline Australian team?

The 1979/80 series would probably answer both the questions. A team comprising of Hilditch, Whatmore, Darling, Wright, Higgs, Hurst, Dymock and Sleep was never expected to do well against a strong batting line up as India's. Scoreline - India 2, Australia 0.

But irrespective of the pre-series standing or the eventual outcome, Australia, along with West Indies, has always remained the most popular team to visit India. It is not difficult to understand why. Not just because of the attractive and aggressive brand of cricket they play, but also largely due to the willingness of top players of the time to travel India, something the established ones from England, and later on New Zealand, never did.

So, while the West Indies' first tour to India in 1948/49 included the likes of Everton Weekes, Clyde Walcott (the other W – Frank Worrell - could not travel to India, but visited two years later as a part of Commonwealth team), George Headley and captain John Goddard, the next one in 1958 saw a galaxy of stars like Sobers, Kanhai, Hunte, Ramadin, Hall and Gilchrist to name just few. The late 70s and early 80s (except for 1978/79, when WI team was crippled by the Packer Series), gave Indians an opportunity to watch Clive Lloyd's champions at their very best.

Ditto with the Australians.

Their first ever series in India in 1956/57 had Benaud, Johnson, Lindwall (his fast bowling partner, Keith Miller, had visited India way back in 1945 with the Australian Services team that was led by Lindsay Hassett, to play 3 unofficial tests) and 'Slasher' Mackay amongst others. The 1959/60 series (with Alan Davidson, Neil Harvey, O'Neill, Benaud and wicket keeper Wally Grout) was a sweet memory for Indian spectators, not only because of the home team's first ever test win against Australia at Kanpur, but also due to the sporting manner in which it was played. Not surprising, for, the teams were led by the redoubtable Richie Benaud and the uncharacteristic Gulab Ramchand. And as Bill Lawry, Keith Stackpole, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and Ian Redpath made it to the Indian shores in the late sixties, the only big four to miss out in the seventies were Lillee, Marsh, (Greg) Chappell and Jeff Thomson, the former three because of the World Series Cricket.

Coming back to the current series, I am also tempted to find an equivalence in the 1986/87 series, when India was widely expected to win against a team that was rebuilding under Alan Border's leadership. The similarities with the present Australian team are too uncanny to ignore. Border's team was regrouping after the mass retirements of Lillee, Marsh and Chappell, the current one is going through a similar phase too; post McGrath, Warne, Langer and Gilchrist. Only that Indians are much stronger this time around.

While Australia still remains THE TEAM to beat, it has lost much of the hegemonic aura that had been its hallmark for a decade and more......in much the same way that American financial institutions have lost theirs, following the Sub Prime crisis and the global meltdown thereof.

Friday 18 April 2008

Don't blame the IPL....

Flashback to the 1950s when India was undertaking her fourth tour to England. Vinoo Mankad, India's star all rounder, was signed by the Lancashire cricket club Haslingden for a princely sum of 1000 Sterling Pounds. Not wanting to lose this money, he did the unthinkable. He asked Indian cricket board to compensate for his loss of revenue in case he was selected to represent India in the test matches! This incident would pass off as rather insignificant, today, but remember we are talking about the 1950s, when cricket was played for fun, pride and everthing else, but certainly not money! It was ok to live in extreme poverty like Vasant Ranjane - India's fast bowler of 1950s - did, or even die in obsurity like JG Navale - India's first ever test keeper. But making money from cricket? Blasphemeous!

Fast forward to the 70s. If there is one cricketer who can be called as the Harbinger of commercialisation of cricket in India, then it is Sunil Gavaskar. Here is what former Indian captain, MAK Pataudi, had to say about him. (Excerpts from Mihir Bose's book - Maidan view) :In Bombay only money seemed to matter, and there was more than one way to make it. Gavaskar found them all. Advertising, film producing, writing articles (on the same match, but for different publications), taking fee for organizing matches, writing instant books which were spiced to sell better, appearance money and signing contracts with manufacturers of sports equipment. He became the first millionaire through cricket, rich enough to buy a flat in the centre of Bombay. In a capitalist cricketing country, he would have been considered a genius. In India they began to call him a mercenary, and within the team he became the envy of some of who felt that their contribution to Indian cricket was not much appreciated. Why should Gavaskar hog all the publicity as well as the money? The answer was simple: he had reached those dizzy heights to which no Indian cricketer in his right mind would even dream of aspiring. As importantly, he was articulate where others were dumb, he was controversial where other dared not to be, he could even be witty and this made him ideal material for the media and advertiser.

Over to the 1990s when Mark Mascarenhas bid for the 1996 WC. He promised an astonomical USD 10 Mn for that event. Back then, that kind of money was unheard of in Indian cricket. It was the beginning of the quest of cricket finding it's market value.

Well into the first decade of the new millenium, Sachin Tendulkar bagged a Rs 200 Crore contract from Iconix.

Last year ESPN Star network bagged the ICC television rights for USD 1.15 Bn.

So friends, don't blame the IPL, the ICL or the Stanford League for commercialisation of this wonderful game. The process of commercialisation is as old as the game itself. These are just the pit stops in the game's long and eventful journey.

Let us allow the market to determine cricket's true value. If the IPL or any of the players flop, be rest assured, market will take its own corrective action. And if they succeed, then fifteen years down the line, Dhoni's Rs 60 Mn or Ishant Sharma's Rs 40 Mn contract for the IPL could well look like peanuts, much in the same way that Vinoo Mankad's 1000 Sterling Pounds contract of 1952, looks now.

Monday 14 April 2008

Well Played South Africa, Welcome IPL

“Wait till you come to the West Indies maan. Our pitches will be too hot to handle.”

That was the gist of what, a justifiably furious Viv Richards said to the Indian team, as India leveled the 4 test series, one all, at Madras in 1988. West Indies were already one up in the series, by the virtue of their win in Delhi, where they skittled out the Indian team for paltry 75 runs. To compound the woes for India, the captain and easily their best batsman, Dilip Vengsarkar, was ruled out of the final test due to an injury.

If the plot bears an uncanny similarity to the one played at Kanpur, then India’s response was even more identical. Throw an under prepared track, make the ball turn from day one, finish the match in three days and level the series one all!

I have no inkling if the South African skipper Graeme Smith has issued any veiled threat to the Indians on the type of pitches they would encounter on their next tour, but he must be ruing his team’s failure, for, chasing a series win in India is a bit like chasing mirage in Thar desert. Ask the West Indies who are still looking for one, twenty years on.

Having played great cricket all through the series, as also in the lead up to it, I thought the South African camp should have seen it coming. Sometimes it helps to have a better sense of history, a lesson they will not forget in hurry.

No such worries for the India captain though. He intelligently opened the bowling with Harbhajan in SA’s second innings. Again, I am not aware if Dhoni is a keen follower of Indian cricket’s history, but if he were to be one, he would find another instance when an off-break bowler opened the bowling for India. The year was 1967 and Gary Sobers was leading the West Indian team that included the likes of Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. Making a complete mockery of fast bowling was the Indian opening pair of Ajit Wadekar and ML Jaisimha who bowled all of three overs between them at Bombay, only to let the more celebrated spinners in Chandra, Venkat, Durrani and Bapu Nadkarni to take over.

To conclude, India has leveled the series despite South Africa playing better cricket. For me, more than the fact that India has retained its number two ranking in the ICC test championship, it is the reinforcement of MS Dhoni as a future test captain and the sight of Ishant Sharma consistently rattling the opposition timber that holds so much promise for the future.

This series was played in the afterglow of India’s successful tour in Australia and also under the shadow of forthcoming Indian Premier League. A combination of other factors like injuries to key players, quality of pitches, an empty stadium and absence of live telecast in many parts of India added to the general lack of enthusiasm.

Cometh 18th April and all that will be a thing of past…..

Thursday 10 April 2008

The Brown Park, Kanpur

Is the logical deduction, therefore, that English grounds men must prepare wickets which will suit the Australian hostility in attack and not expose the limitations of their batting? In this Welfare State age of all things on a platter and made easy, is a turning wicket a dishonour and no longer a challenge to personal skill?

So went the report in the ‘Manchester Guardian’ after the second day of the fourth test between England and Australia at Old Trafford, 1956. This was in the aftermath of Jim Laker taking 9 wickets, sending Aussies crashing from 62/2 at tea, to 84 all out, in their first innings. Laker went on to capture all 10 wickets in Australia’s second innings to win the match for England by an innings and 170 runs.

Close on the heels of this astonishing feat, two Indian bowlers, both spinners, had flirted with the ‘Perfect Ten’, Green Park stadium at Kanpur being witness to both these instances.

West Indies captain, Gerry Alexander had won the toss in the second test at Kanpur and elected to bat. Not surprising, for, that West Indian team of 1958 boasted of batsmen like Conrad Hunte, Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Collie Smith and the skipper himself. At 55/0, it looked like yet another leather hunt for the Indian fielders. Only Subhash Gupte, whom Gary Sobers later described as the best leg spinner of his time, had different ideas. He took the next seven WI wickets on trot and looked well set to emulate Jim Laker, only to be ‘thwarted’ by debutante Indian fast bowler Vasant Ranjane, who clean bowled Lance Gibbs, the eight wicket to fall. Subhash Gupte eventually finished the innings with 9/102.

If Ranjane denied Subhash Gupte a place in record books, it was Chandu Borde who ‘spoiled’ off spinner Jasu Patel’s figures at Kanpur, a year later. It was an identical Australian batting line up that faced Jim Laker in the 1956 test, O’Neill and Alan Davidson being the only two changes. Jasu Patel’s 9 wicket haul in the first innings (to go with another 5 in the second innings) not only gave India their first ever test victory against Australia, but also earned him a Padmashri (Indian Civilian award) the following year.

As the Indo-African caravan moves to Kanpur for the final test, the name ‘Green Park’ looks at best, a misnomer. Spinners have always ruled the roost here. The last time it smiled on fast bowlers was about 25 years ago, when a certain Malcolm Marshall, at his menacing best, knocked the bat out of Sunil Gavaskar’s hand and hurled India to a humiliating defeat.

In last fifty years, India has lost only twice at Kanpur, to West Indies on both occasions. When Subhash Gupte’s dream spell was overshadowed by Wes Hall’s 10 wicket haul in 1958 and later when India’s 1983 world cup euphoria was cut short by Marshall’s fearsome bowling.

Dale Steyn, Ntini and co could well find a place in the annals alongside Halls and Marshall, if they make the brown track at ‘Green Park’ redundant with their pace.

Otherwise, India could well be on her way to level the series, one all.